The Mobile World Congress (MWC) that’s on in Barcelona, Spain this week has not disappointed. One of the more interesting announcements is from VMWare, makers of virtualization software. Virtualization, in computing, is the creation of a virtual (rather than actual) version of something, such as a hardware platform, operating system, storage device, or network resources. In effect, an additional software “layer” is created, that simulates something. This virtual system can be quite different from the underlying system it is actually running on. For example, an Apple Mac can be simulated on a Windows PC, and vice versa.
Imagine a stage actor who puts on a costume and then “becomes” the character associated with the costume—the actor underneath the costume is still the same real person, but the costume temporarily creates a virtual person quite different from the underlying real person. This creates tremendous flexibility. Instead of having to find a real person that exactly fits each role, one can just switch costumes and re-use the same actors to play multiple different virtual roles. That saves a lot of time and money.
This has been done for many years on larger hardware platforms, and is a key technology for cloud computing as we know it today. Now VMWare has announced the extension of virtualization to mobile devices. This is a big deal.
One important advantage is that mobile device users can now run more than one operating system (such as Android or iOS or Windows Phone) on the same physical device. One of these “virtual phones” could be set up for business use, and a second one for personal use, with easy one-click switching between them. Which means you can use a single device for multiple contexts. Consumers can buy their favorite physical device, then set up multiple virtual devices on it. The corporate “virtual phone” could be tightly locked down for security by their employer, while their personal “virtual phone” could be freely customized to suit their personal desires.
A second advantage of being able to run multiple different operating systems simultaneously on the same physical device, is that users are no longer forced to choose between being locked in to either the Apple App Store or the Android Market. Both Apple apps and Android apps can be used on the same phone. (This is a possible future option that is not yet enabled in the current version, which only works on Android.)
The virtualization goes further than just operating systems. SIM cards can be virtualized too. So even with just a single physical SIM card in the phone, multiple virtual SIM cards can be simulated, thus allowing the same phone to be used to receive calls for multiple different phone numbers—with each number optionally set to ring with a different ringtone.
The possibilities are endless. The cross-platform flexibility made possible by virtualization technologies means the underlying hardware is becoming more and more commoditized. Increasingly, the interesting stuff happens in software, and this trend is accelerating. Indeed, as thought leaders such as John Smart and Ray Kurzweil have argued, the trend from actual to virtual, from reality to simulation, can be traced far back in time, and it is accelerating at an exponential pace. Observe how much more time all of us spend in virtual online work environments, networks, games, and even worlds than ever before.
The implication for the mobile industry is intensified competition and accelerating innovation cycles. The fastest, best innovators will win—until they are overtaken by even faster, better innovators. As Engadget reports, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during his MWC keynote that Android is now on a six-month update cycle. That’s twice as fast as its nearest competitor—Apple releases a new version of its iOS platform once a year.
Tough news for producers, good news for consumers.